December 22, 2012: Diaspora Judaism (Vayigash)

What is the position of Jews in the Diaspora? If you believed that the primary goal of Zionism was to provide a refuge from anti-Semitism, then you could support the State of Israel politically and financially without living there. If, on the other hand, you believed that the goal of Zionism was to enable Judaism to flourish, once again, in the one place where it could be practiced authentically—in the Holy Land, then you would really have no alternative but to eventually move there. Are we all just marking time until we make aliyah?

For the first time in the Torah, this week’s portion raises the issue of the diaspora condition. “And God appeared to Israel in a vision by night: ‘I am God; the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down into Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.’” (Genesis 46:2-3) But why should Jacob be afraid? After all, he is about to be reunited with his beloved, long lost son, Joseph, who has prospered in Egypt and will now sustain him and his entire household in spite of the famine. The second half of the sentence, “I will make you there into a great nation,” signals that the focus of the Torah begins to shift from familial to national concerns. As Biblical scholar Nehama Leibowitz writes: “The fear alluded to here is not connected with Jacob’s personal feelings, but is part of the symbolic or archetypal dread of the founder of the nation of the spiritual consequences of leaving the homeland and going into exile.” Jacob acquires a kind of prophetic insight. He foresees the troubled history of the Children of Israel down through the ages. His “vision by night” is an indication that the dark age of national exile is at hand.

Israel could only be forged into a nation outside of the Land of Israel. The classic commentator Sforno explains: “Had they remained in the Holy Land, they would have intermarried and assimilated, whereas this could not happen in Egypt, since the Egyptians cannot dine together with the Hebrews. Thus, they were distinguished there—prominent and set apart.” (Leibowitz, Studies in Genesis, p. 512) Interestingly, Sforno upends the conventional thinking on the dangers of assimilation. In America, we generally believe that the predominantly non-Jewish open society in which we live poses a constant threat to the maintenance of Jewish identity, because Jews and non-Jews have so many occasions to commingle. Sforno argues just the opposite. The threat to strong cohesion may actually be greater in the homeland, because among foreigners the minority community must work hard to keep themselves apart and distinguished from the prevailing society.

My own experience living in Israel and in Indiana corroborates the ironic notion that Jewish identification is stronger in the Diaspora. As most of us know, Progressive Judaism faces enormous obstacles in its effort to gain a foothold in the Israeli religious landscape—including bills in the Knesset delegitimizing non-Orthodox conversions. Many Israelis aren’t even aware that Progressive Judaism exists as a religious alternative to Orthodoxy. For the most part, in Israel, you are either dati or chiloni, you are either religious, i.e. Orthodox, or secular—there’s no in-between. Therefore, if you are not Orthodox, you don’t think twice about being Jewish—it’s just part of the background. Instead of Jewish values, American-style consumerism pervades secular Israeli culture. By contrast, we at Beth Shalom constantly take deliberate action to assert our Jewish values in the face of the dominant culture around us. Against the pervasion of wreaths and lights displayed throughout Bloomington during this season, we celebrate our Jewishness with the Spirit of Hanukkah and other communal events. Both children and adults forge their identities by distinguishing themselves from others around them who are different.

Personally, I don’t agree with the founders of the Reform Movement that the place for Jews is necessarily in the Diaspora. But I also don’t agree with religious Zionists that the only place for Jews is in Israel. My vision of the Jewish world is pluralistic. I believe that world Jewry derives its strength from the profusion of diverse Jewish communities that constitute it, across many different lines: Israeli and Diaspora, Orthodox and Progressive, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, and on and on. The exchange and interplay of ideas not only breed dynamism and growth among all Jewish communities, but they also strengthen cohesion and identity within each Jewish community.

Jews, like God, belong everywhere. The Talmud recounts: “Wherever Israel went, the Shechinah (Divine Presence) accompanied them; they went to Egypt, the Shechinah accompanied them; they want to Babylonia, the Shechinah accompanied them.” (bMegillah 29a) Of course, when they returned to the Land of Israel, the Shechinah accompanied them there too. May the Shechinah reside among us wherever we gather as Jews to celebrate our heritage and to improve the world—in Indiana, in Israel, and throughout the earth.